Vol. 25, No.38 Week of September 20, 2020
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Two more lawsuits

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Village of Venetie, various US states challenge ANWR lease sale decision

Alan Bailey

for Petroleum News

Legal action challenging the Department of the Interior’s decision to authorize oil and gas lease sales in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is mounting in the U.S. District Court for Alaska. As previously reported in Petroleum News, on Aug. 24 a lawsuit from a group of environmental organizations and another lawsuit from the Gwich’in Steering Committee and some other environmental organizations landed in the court. The latest action, on Sept. 9, saw a court filing from the tribal governments of the Village of Venetie and Arctic Village, and another filing from a group of 15 U.S. states. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed a record of decision on Aug. 17 approving an ANWR coastal plain leasing program.

Concerns about caribou impacts

The Village of Venetie and Arctic Village are home to the Gwich’in, a Native people of Arctic Alaska and northern Canada. The Gwich’in have for many years expressed strong concern about the potential impact of oil and gas industrial activities on the Porcupine caribou herd that calves on the ANWR coastal plain - caribou form a primary subsistence food source for the Gwich’in. The Gwich’in characterize the coastal plain as the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

“The coastal plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’aii Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole,” said Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government First Chief Margorie Gemmill in a Sept. 9 release. “The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving areas in the coastal plain. Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people.”

The Sept. 9 court filing by the tribal governments emphasized this same point, while also commenting that the ANWR coastal plain provides habitat for huge numbers of migratory birds and many species of mammals, fish and other wildlife. The appellees argue that the Department of the Interior conducted “hurried and deeply flawed reviews of the (leasing) program’s impacts on subsistence, historic properties and the environment,” when reaching its Aug. 17 record of decision. Thus, the department violated a number of federal laws, including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and the Administrative Procedures Act, the appellees claim.

The appellees argue that National Environmental Policy Act analysis leading to the lease sale record of decision significantly underestimated the potential amount of oil that may be produced from the coastal plain and failed to consider the potential environmental impacts of pre-leasing seismic surveying. Moreover, the action alternatives considered in the lease sale environmental impact statement maximize potential oil and gas development while under emphasizing environmental and human health protections, the court filing says. The appellees also claim inconsistencies between the findings in the lease sale record of decision and the terms of the 2017 Tax Act, the act containing approval for the holding of ANWR lease sales.

Filing by 15 states

The following 15 states participated in the other lawsuit filed on Sept. 9: Washington, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The states’ court filing argues that the record of decision and its related final environmental impact statement for ANWR lease sales violate several federal statutes, including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. Interior failed to determine that an authorized leasing program is compatible with the purposes of ANWR and also prioritizes oil and gas development over the refuge’s conservation purposes, the states claim. The filing says that topics inadequately evaluated include the impact of leasing on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and the impacts on migratory birds - the states cite the potential impacts of ANWR oil and gas leasing on birds that migrate from the coastal plain to the states’ own territories, as well as the potential impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the states.

“Defendants’ actions severely underestimate the avoidable and irreparable damage to vital habitat and pristine waters, imperil wildlife already struggling to thrive in a rapidly changing ecosystem, and increase greenhouse gas emissions at a time when our nation and the world drastically need to reduce emissions to mitigate the most extreme harms of climate change,” the states’ court filing says.

As in the other filing, the states also claim that the record of decision and FEIS make an unlawful interpretation of the terms of the 2017 Tax Act.

Interior should have considered an alternative for oil and gas leasing that includes restrictions on surface disturbance, limits on ice road construction, phased leasing and other possibilities for mitigating environmental impacts, the states’ filing says.

Alternative perspectives

Proponents of oil and gas leasing in the ANWR coastal plain argue that restrictions in surface impacts, as mandated in the 2017 Tax Act, coupled with the use of modern technologies such as long-reach directional drilling would minimize the impact of oil and gas development in the region. At the same time, development would bring significant economic benefits at the local, state and federal levels, proponents have argued.

There is a diversity of views on the North Slope regarding potential oil development on the ANWR coastal plain, given the potential for development to bring economic benefits to the region. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Native regional corporation for the North Slope, has expressed its support for oil and gas leasing on the coastal plain, while also emphasizing the critical importance of environmental protection and the need to recognize the importance of the caribou to Native communities.

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